Despite widespread public concern about groundwater contamination, experts asked to assess the risks posed by hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas recently placed the most emphasis on preventing threats to surface water quality. That consensus, and others discussed last week at a conference in Cleveland, provide sound guidelines for regulating Ohio’s energy boom.
The two-day conference was sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering, which sampled opinions about hydraulic fracturing from 215 experts from government, universities, industry and environmental organizations.
Of the 12 risks most frequently agreed upon by the experts, seven had to do with the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on surface water. They include activities such as on-site storage of the drilling fluid (water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals) that flows back from wells. Another aspect that received attention from the experts was the damage to air quality from venting methane from oil and gas wells.
Often noted was the need to monitor carefully and continue studying the impact of hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking. For example, the question of groundwater contamination, a big concern for environmental groups, remains under study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Its final report is due in 2016, with a preliminary report likely late next year.
Ohio is fortunate to have in place comprehensive regulation on hydraulic fracturing, more detailed than in many states. That said, there are areas that deserve much more scrutiny (most notably, the protections given to drillers for their trade secrets, in the form of the chemical mix used to help fracture deep shale formations).
As drilling ramps up in the state, there is also the challenge to make sure that what has been promised, in the form of state law and regulatory policy, is backed up with the necessary personnel and equipment. State officials project there will be 1,000 shale wells by 2015, pumping out 7.2 million barrels of oil and 146 billion cubic feet of natural gas. That represents great promise, in jobs and domestic energy supplies. It also represents a challenge to develop the industry without harming Ohio’s air, water and public health.